The second Caitlin Clark gets the ball in her hands and starts tearing down the court, anything can happen.
She might make a pass to start a play. Or, if a lane is wide open, she won’t hesitate to drive to the rack and drop it in, no matter who is defending the basket. Just as easily, Clark may stop and launch a long three-pointer, which falls much of the time. In other instances, the 6-foot guard may find an open teammate and bullet-pass the ball into her hands, which ends up counting as an assist after it swishes the net.
That Clark is comfortable enough, and successful enough, to make all of these scoring scenarios happen in every game for the Iowa Hawkeyes has put her in the conversation for freshman of the year. She is a stat sheet stuffer who is already running her team like a seasoned pro.
“She not only leads our team in scoring, but she leads the Big Ten in assists,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “She’s one of our best free throw shooters. She’s our second-best rebounder as the point guard. She’s really contributed in a lot of ways.”
Clark’s statistics are eye-popping. Her scoring is fourth-best in Division I, at an average 25.9 points per game. She’s racked up a Big Ten-best 414 points and has scored 30 or more in six games – the most for a conference player this season. Her career high is 37 points, which she posted last month.
The points just keep coming, too. Clark is one of those players that create their own game flow, and it will seem like one minute she’ll have eight points, and then mere moments later, that number will be 26. She is a threat anywhere on the floor because of her shooting range and her passing ability, so she draws a lot of attention from the defense.
At 6.4 assists per outing, Clark ranks tenth in the country in that category. She has been named Big Ten freshman of the week nine times, which ties the conference record.
But almost more than Clark’s statistical assault in her collegiate debut, her astonishing level of confidence on the court is exceptional. She moves quickly, with no hesitation, sizing up the floor and making the right decisions. There is no pause in her step, no uncertainty on her face as she moves. She just attacks.
Bluder saw it when she was recruiting Clark, as a member of a national title-winning Iowa club basketball team.
“She had been playing with older girls for a long time for the Iowa Attack, and you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see she was going to be a great player,” Bluder said. “She just carried herself in a different way, had great size and great court awareness, and had a bit of a swag to her.”
Even so, Clark’s instant adjustment to the college game has stood out.
“Her wanting the ball in her hands and wanting to control the game so much is remarkable to me as a freshman, because usually freshmen wait their turn a little bit,” Bluder said. “But that wasn’t the case with her.”
Junior forward Monika Czinano, who is often the target for Clark’s assists, pointed to her teammate’s gold medals with USA Basketball’s U16 and U19 as a factor in her development.
“She has a lot of experience playing with good people and against good people. She’s played at a really high level, so that’s a factor,” Czinano said. “But she also has this level of confidence in herself and believes in herself. That has allowed her to go into a program and not have to take that breath that most freshman do, and get adjusted.”
The seeds of Clark’s self-assuredness were planted early in grade school in West Des Moines, when the self-described “loud, outgoing” kid first picked up a basketball. She played with boys on the team her father coached until sixth grade, when she joined Iowa Attack. Her dad taught her to be a multi-dimensional player. When she did step into girl’s games occasionally, Clark isn’t shy in saying she “just kind of demolished them.”
As part of a large family with male cousins, she learned how to compete at an early age.
“Family events were pretty wild. I’d just get picked on all the time,” Clark said. “They would pick on me. They never took it easy on me and I would just cry all the time. I was so competitive. I hate losing and I hate being left out of things. But that made me who I am today.”
Clark, who spent her elementary years involved in several sports, played soccer until her sophomore year in high school, when she gave it up to focus solely on basketball.
Playing for the U.S. at the FIBA games taught Clark a lot, and revealed what was necessary to succeed in the sport she loved.
“That was my first real taste of success, in a way, and recognition,” she said. “It also showed me how many good players there are in America, and that I’ve got to work hard.”
She found herself on a U19 squad that included standouts Naz Hillmon from Michigan and Rhyne Howard from Kentucky. Their coach was Louisville’s Jeff Walz.
“It was really cool to talk to them about the college game, and that almost put me a step ahead in a way,” Clark said. “And coach Walz, he wasn’t easy on us.”
Clark isn’t easy on her opponents, either. She plays with an edge and an intensity that makes an instant impression.
“On the floor she’s one of those kids you love to have on your team, but you hate to play against her,” Bluder said. “She’s clapping, in your face a little bit.”
Czinano said Clark’s playing temperament is a team motivator.
“She always has that fiery spirit on and off the court. I would hate to play against her I’m glad we’re here teammates,” Czinano said. “On the court she definitely takes it very seriously. She knows her stuff.”
Clark said her on-court demeanor is part of her game.
“I definitely don’t think my opponents like me, but at the same time, I don’t need them to like me,” she said. “I’m competitive I’ve got some fire in me. Sometimes I go to one of my teammates and tell them, ‘if something happens, you’ve got to pull me out!’”
But that is where it ends for Clark. Ultimately, despite her fierceness in play, she realizes basketball is a game.
“It’s all fun,” she said. “I’m just competitive. I just want to win, and it’s nothing personal.”
Clark’s ability to keep the sport in perspective, to mix it up on court and then shift gears after the final buzzer, is distinctive.
“I think you’ve got to have fun; it can’t be serious all the time,” she said. “And I think I’m really good at flipping that switch. When we start film for practice I’m dialed in for film. When we start practice, I’m dialed in for that. And I don’t think everybody can have that.”
Bluder said Clark’s off-basketball persona conflicts sharply with her playing mentality.
“She is hilarious, she does not take herself too seriously,” Bluder said. “She is one you can tease and she can take it, and she enjoys that. She’s very personable off the court.”
Czinano said Clark the person is a breath of fresh air to her teammates.
“She’s a goofball, like a little sister,” Czinano said. “She’s funny, says dumb stuff. Sometimes you’re like, ‘did she really just say that?’ She brings a lightheartedness to the team.”
By mutual agreement, Clark came to Iowa City with a lot of expectations. Starting senior point guard Kathleen Doyle would soon graduate, and Bluder needed someone to fill that spot.
“We told her that this was going to be her role,” Bluder said. “I usually don’t tell that to kids when I’m recruiting, that they’re going to step right in, but with her we had a need, and she wanted that.”
In watching Clark play since seventh grade, Bluder knew she could handle the job.
“She’s not a kid who’s intimidated by anything or anyone. One of the reasons she’s good is that she’s not in awe of anything or anyone, and that adds to her ability to play right away,” Bluder said.
Clark had plenty of offers. In the end it was down to Iowa, Iowa State and Notre Dame. She chose the Hawkeyes because she wanted to make a difference right away.
“I wanted to impact the team I was going to right away, and with Kathleen Doyle leaving to go to the (WNBA), I thought this was a perfect spot for me to slide in and take over the point guard spot,” she said. “And that’s what coach Bluder reiterated to me all through my recruitment. Then on my visits, the girls and the coaches – it felt right; it felt like where I needed to be.”
Having her relatives just over an hour away was also a big factor in her decision.
“My family is really close so that’s a big one for me being able to go home on the weekends, and having them at all my home games,” Clark said. “They haven’t missed one yet, and I don’t think they will.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark didn’t have the typical summer practice sessions that start breeding familiarity and camaraderie. But she has fit in, and the veterans and newcomers are learning to work together as a unit.
“It takes a little bit to figure it out with a new point guard,” Czinano said. “She’s different than Kathleen.”
Clark and Czinano have developed a nice synergy and feel for the other on court.
“She has a really high basketball IQ. She knows where people are going to go,” Czinano said. “Sometimes she knows where I’m going to be before I know where I’m going to be. Sometimes in transition, I swear she’s throwing the ball and I don’t know I’m going to get there.”
The team, however, is still working on building chemistry as a whole. Iowa has had six losses, and all but two have been close. Their aim is for daily improvement.
“Our goal as a team is chip away; get a little bit better every game,” Czinano said. “Our coaches talk about chipping away, and eventually it’ll crack.”
Clark embraces that philosophy, with the big picture in mind.
“The reason I came here is to take them somewhere they haven’t been,” she said. “They’ve been to the Final Four before, but that’s when Vivian Stringer was the coach. They went to the Elite 8 in 2019, and if COVID didn’t happen last year, they would have gone somewhere.”
“We’ve got the talent, and we’ve got talent coming in. We’re improving, playing together as a team, and putting the pieces together. It’ll take time.”
Clark also takes that pledge personally, and is always striving to improve.
“I want to watch film. I want to know what I did wrong, because I still have so many areas to improve on,” she said. “Even what I’m good at, I can improve that too. (Coaches and teammates) don’t take it easy on me, and I don’t want them to. I really like that our coaches don’t give me a free pass. They’re going to let me know when I’m wrong.”
Czinano said their coaches handle Clark’s player development, and she and her teammates handle the rest, as they take time to teach her about what she characterizes as their strong team culture.
“She has all the skills in the world, and to watch her keep honing them and get more deadly with them is really cool,” Czinano said. “Were trying to make her, as upperclassmen, the best teammate and best player that she can be, and those go hand in hand.”
Clark appreciates all of the assistance.
“They’ve taken me under their wings, they’re always teaching me, and they’re not afraid to correct me, either,” she said. “They know I’m still learning, that I need help and that I don’t know everything, and I’m open with them, as well. If I have a question, I’ll ask them. They want the best for me.”
As her performances continue to stand out, Clark has been getting more attention. This past week she was named to the watch lists for the Dawn Staley Award and the Naismith Trophy.
Bluder said the best is yet to come for the budding star.
“I’m really glad we have three and a half more years with her, because I think she can be even better,” Bluder said. “I think we’re just touching the surface of how good she can actually be. She’s not a finished product yet.”